450 Sutter: The Art of Preservation
By: Jessica Moskovitz, a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.
Just a block north of San Francisco’s retail core, there stands a building that has influenced many generations. Graced with metalwork in gold, bronze and silver, and clad in Mayan-influenced terracotta panels, the “Skyscraper for the Jazz Age” at 450 Sutter Street was one of the last buildings constructed before the Great Depression. Designed by architect Timothy Pflueger, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure’s faceted exterior is said to have influenced the design of the nearby Bank of America tower. The 450 Sutter tower remained one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco until the building boom of the late 1960s.
But not everything about the stately property ran smoothly. From the beginning, there were rumors that the bay windows had been installed incorrectly — opening inward rather than outward. When it rained, property managers had to issue towels to tenants as water leaked through the windows.
Embracing the Art Deco Influence
Growing up in San Francisco’s working class Mission District, architect Timothy Pflueger rose through the ranks of his profession to construct some of California’s most iconic buildings. From the Paramount Theater in Oakland to the I. Magnin flagship (now a part of Macy’s Union Square), the architecture of Pflueger’s buildings is unique among other towers in the city. Pflueger commissioned artists, such as Diego Rivera and Ralph Stakpole, to create striking pieces which were integrated into his design.
After completing the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph (PT&T) building in 1925, Pflueger designed 450 Sutter to be 10 feet higher than the PT&T tower, a lofty goal in that time period. Since the new skyscraper would serve doctors and dentists, an underground, multi-level garage served as a major selling point for physicians with frequent hospital rounds. The lobby, 18 feet wide by two stories high, allowed ample room for patients entering and exiting the structure.
The thin-skinned building exterior features Mayan-ornamented spandrels, alternating with bay windows. An inverted gold pyramid ceiling in the lobby recalls the interior of a Mayan temple, and the burgundy Levanto marble walls contrast against etched panels in bronze and gold leaf.
“450 Sutter is a magnificent period piece,” says Jordan Schnitzer, president and CEO, Harsch Investment Properties. “Like a great work of art, we have a moral obligation to preserve it. Because Harsch Investment Properties is a privately owned business, we can look at a property like this with a long view — as stewards, not just merchant owners, who often look to make a short-term, immediate profit.”
Art Appreciation Runs Deep
Harsch Investment Properties, which owns and operates 21 million square feet of office, multi-tenant industrial and retail properties in five western states, was founded in 1951 by Schnitzer’s father, Harold. “We always looked at real estate on family vacations. I first visited 450 Sutter in the seventh grade. My father was a brilliant real estate investor and saw the long-term investment value of 450 Sutter when he purchased the building in 1962. I grew up watching him restore properties and create value,” recalls Schnitzer.
Jordan Schnitzer began his own career working for the company at the age of 14, serving as a janitor. The next summer, he was a painter, continuing to climb the ladder, until he was given the opportunity to take an office position.
Schnitzer has also followed the family’s commitment to support art and culture, creating one of the nation’s largest contemporary print collections, which he shares with the public through a steady practice of loans, touring exhibits, and through the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. It’s this appreciation for art that led him to take a new look at 450 Sutter and what it would take to ensure that the building served both tenants and the public for years to come. Pointing to a Frank Stella print on the wall of his office, he commented, “Someday, I won’t be here, but this art will be. The same is true of 450 Sutter. I don’t own it — I serve it and preserve it for future generations.”
Preserving History While Serving Tenant Needs
Unlike many high-rise towers, 450 Sutter features operable windows, allowing offices to cool during the summer without air conditioning. Harsch Investment Properties invested $25 million to replace the original bay windows.
The 450 Sutter tower provided unique challenges for an owner who felt a duty to restore it, while preserving its historical significance. Replacement of the boilers was problematic because the original coal boilers were so large that they had to be built into the foundation as the building was constructed. In the 1980s, the boilers were converted from coal to oil with little effect in reducing energy costs. To meet current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, the massive boilers were disassembled, cut into pieces and removed from the building. The new boilers, manufactured in 2011, use natural gas and are much more efficient, while working with original steam radiators which are still in place.
In 2011, motion sensors were installed and light bulbs replaced (from T-12 to T-8), significantly reducing the use of electricity. Touchless fixtures, such as motion sensor sink faucets, help immensely in water conservation for the building, as do spring-loaded, battery-powered paper towel dispensers and automatic soap devices.
Newly installed windows no longer allow air to escape or water to seep in, keeping the building well insulated during the winter months. This saves on natural gas costs by capturing heat that would have otherwise escaped through the original drafty and warped windows. Interestingly, unlike many high-rise towers, the building features operable windows, allowing offices to cool during the summer without air conditioning.
None of these improvements were easy. “Harsch couldn’t be a day early, or a day late,” says Schnitzer of the $25 million window replacement project. “Some of these tenants are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the very first people to occupy the building. In order to complete the restoration and provide the best possible customer service to tenants, phone lines and other services were redirected and a concierge service and temporary suites were established. Tenants were informed of the specific days workers would need access to their suite, and a complete communications plan was executed to make sure all of the needs of the tenants were met.” Schnitzer takes pride in the way Harsch and the construction team handled this delicate challenge, “In the end, we didn’t have a single complaint.”
Today, 450 Sutter is the only historic building — and only one of three high-rise buildings in San Francisco — to have competed in the Energy Star Battle of the Buildings. This competition calls for all building tenants to remove their electronic waste through the building’s free eWaste service (run by Green Citizen, Inc.). The result is divergence of several hundred tons of electronic equipment away from landfills and responsible reuse or recycling of these items.
An inverted gold pyramid ceiling in the lobby recalls the interior of a Mayan temple, and the burgundy Levanto marble walls contrast against etched panels in bronze and gold leaf.
“Harsch takes the same approach to all of their properties — creating the best possible experience for tenants, customers and clients. But some accomplishments instill just a little extra pride and 450 Sutter is one of those projects. Not only is the building an international monument; it’s one of the busiest properties in the city, in terms of visitors per day. My goal is to make sure that every guest and every worker has a great experience in the building, for generations to come,” said Schnitzer.